Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Big Picture

By Bill Duesing

We've been traveling around our beautiful country this summer.  Aside from the wonderful natural places, we've seen evidence of incredible wealth and of some big messes we've made and abandoned. 

From Texas west, the drought has dried up lakes, closed parks and seriously impacted forest health and agriculture.  There are so many decaying small towns.  Yet the supermarkets are well stocked, most even with a widening organic selection, and the container ships keep coming from Asia to fill store shelves, homes and the burgeoning number of self-storage facilities.

Center pivot irrigation systems help produce alfalfa, wheat and corn in the desert, until the aquifer dries up.  Long, long trains carry coal east across the top of Texas.  Other long trains there carry shipping containers to fill southern stores. During two days of driving, we passed full cattle trucks heading west and empty ones heading east. Must be to a big distant slaughterhouse. Everywhere there are ads for elaborate hamburgers.

It is clear that this is not sustainable.  We are now using the resources of one and a half Earths each year.  In the Houston area, it seems like they are working as hard as they can to use two Earths' worth of resources.  They are building highways in the sky.

Rock formations and Native American names remind us of the longer history of this land and of the enormous changes that have occurred.

I think that "The Big Picture" written nearly 20 years ago for The Natural Farmer is still relevant and useful in guiding our response to the serious challenges we face. 

The Big Picture, reviews by Bill Duesing
For The Natural Farmer, March, 1995, The Natural Farmer is the publication of the Northeast Organic Farming Association. (NOFA).

Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, 1992. Bantam/Turner Books
How Much Land Can Ten Billion People Spare for Nature? by Paul E. Waggoner, February, 1994. CAST Task Force Report, No, 121.
Shattering: Food, Politics and the Loss of Genetic Diversity  by Cary Fowler and Pat Mooney, 1990. University of Arizona Press

Recently, these three publications dealing with agriculture, the earth and its inhabitants came to my attention.  They are thought-provoking and provide a broader context for our work. 

I rarely read novels, but after my son and my wife both recommended Ishmael, I did.  It was a requirement for Dans study of sustainable communities at the Gaia Educational Outreach Institute in Temple, NH. In addition to these recommendations, Ishmael won the Turner Tomorrow Fellowship for fiction that produces creative and positive solutions to global problems.  Its easy to see why.  Gentle and engaging, it changes the way we look at the world and deepens our understanding of the human story.  

Near the beginning, the protagonist, with some reluctance and cynicism, answers an ad which reads  TEACHER seeks pupil.  Must have an earnest desire to save the world.  Apply in person. The teacher, Ishmael, is a gorilla.  His experiences in a zoo, in a traveling menagerie and with a tutor on a private estate have given him an interesting perspective on the human species.  And, he is able to communicate telepathically.

Most of the novel is a dialogue between teacher and pupil.  Ishmaels views on agriculture, contemporary mythology, the Mother Culture and captivity raise as many questions in our minds as they do in his students.  Sometimes theres so much to think about as Ishmael challenges our assumptions that it is hard to read very much at one sitting.  Other times, it flows quickly and movingly and the pages fly by. 

One of the books most powerful images is Ishmaels description of Taker society branching off from the long line of Leaver societies at the beginning of agriculture 10,000 years ago. He says that the Taker society decided it wasnt subject to the laws of nature.   He compares the mere 500 generations ofTaker society to an attempt at flying before the laws of aerodynamics are known.  The erstwhile flying machine is launched from a high cliff and glides for a long time.  At first everything looks great - Were flying.  But, as time goes on, the plane sinks lower and lower.  A few passengers begin to notice that the plane is going down, but others say, just pedal faster.  Eventually, more and more people notice that the enterprise seems to be failing.
 (In his wonderful book, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists and the Ecology of New England, William Cronin offers a classic example of what Ishmael would call a Leaversociety when he describes the relationship of population size and ecosystems among Northern New England Indians.) 

Ishmael is a refreshing antidote to the recently-published 64-page report How Much Land Can Ten Billion People Spare for Nature?  This clever public relations ploy, a perfect example of the Taker vision, is a task force report, commissioned by Rockefeller University and published one year ago by CAST.  (CAST, the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology, consists of  Weed, Poultry, Dairy and other agri-science societies, companies and individuals.)  This report was widely distributed to Congress, government agencies and the media.  CAST seems to assume that Americans are too jaded to worry about hungry people in their midst, but they will worry about nature. 

Hubris is the word which springs to mind as we read the title of this report.  (These reports are the raison detre of CAST). The assumption that humans can exist for long without being part of nature is downright arrogant.  (This is the central issue in Ishmael.)  The author of the report, Dr. Paul Waggoner, one of the worlds leading agricultural scientists, is the former director of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven.  He is frequently called upon to chair a commission which expresses the opinion of the powerful. He chaired a National Academy of Science Panel on Adaptation to Global Warming. That panels report assumed a surprise-free scenario of mild, predictable change and therefore said that we shouldnt do much to prepare for global warming.

In this report, Dr. Waggoner supports widespread adoption of all the most advanced technology and biotechnology to grow more food on less land in order to feed 10 billion people by the middle of the next century and still leave room for nature.  However, Dr. Waggoner demonstrates the limitations of his linear thinking when he writes about fertilizers, climate change, and flooding.  He sees essentially no limit to the availability of chemical fertilizers to raise yields to spare more land for nature.  Although he is a meteorologist, he devotes only two paragraphs in the surprises chapter to climate change. He claims that the midwestern floods in 1993 discredited or at least discounted the predictions of a warming and drying climate made just five years earlier.  His conclusion is that farmers should diversify portfolios and await surprises.

However, there are a number of important connections that he doesnt make.  It seems more likely, especially this winter, that any cooling was a temporary effect of the Pinatubo volcano.  He also doesnt note that chemical fertilizers are one of many tools that large-scale agriculture has used to destroy the water-holding capacity of millions of acres of some of the earths most fertile soil. After nearly a hundred years of this destruction, its no wonder there were severe floods.   He also doesnt point out that fertilizers themselves cause the release of methane (from the organic matter burned up by the high nitrogen to carbon ratio synthetic nitrogen fertilizers create).  This methane is a powerful greenhouse gas which may increase climate change.  It also seems inexcusable to talk just about slow warming and not about the kinds of severe and record-breaking weather events which are occurring  all over the globe.

To his credit, he does discuss the effects of diet on the amount of food consumed, although he fails to note that the modern food system encourages the most energy- and resource-intensive diets.  It is direct contact with the food from our gardens and farms which is most useful in encouraging a less intensive diet, I believe.

This report is full of charts, graphs and formulas.   At one point Dr. Waggoner reduces the whole question of the price of food in the future to a simple equation involving technological change, income elasticity of demand, demand and supply elasticity of price, and population. His conclusion: so by harvesting more per plot, farmers can help ten billion spare some land that unchanging yields would require to feed them.  Glimmers can be seen even of changing diets, never-ending research, encouraging incentives, and smart farmers feeding ten billion at affordable prices while sparing some of todays cropland for Nature.

The month after How Much Land... was published, the Hudson Institute, founded by Herman Kahn, published a Briefing Paper by Dennis T. Avery. Avery was one of three reviewers of How Much Land...  and defended biotechnology at the 1993 NOFA Conference.  This paper, titled The Organic Farming Threat to People and Wildlife probably evolved from Dr. Waggoners work. Averys thesis seems to be based on very limited, skewed data, and the linear/mechanical model.  Sadly, neither of these gentlemen has any role for the vast majority of people to play in food production.

Ishmaels comments are relevant here. Given an expanding food supply, any population will expand.  This is true of any species including the human.  The Takers have been proving this here for ten thousand years.  For ten thousand years theyve been steadily increasing food production to feed an increased population, and every time theyve done this, the population has increased still more.
Shattering: Food, Politics and the Loss of Genetic Diversity had been on our book shelf for several years, unread, until it was assigned as the textbook for a graduate course Food Policies and Environmental Issues that Suzanne just started as part of her graduate work in Environmental Education.  I had assumed Shattering was just about biotechnology, which I figured I knew enough about to reject.   Once I delved into it, however, I discovered that it is about much more than just biotechnology.  It is very readable, has a broad scope and is very informative.  It provides a non-fiction balance to the CAST report.

The authors point out, for instance, that in precisely the areas where the green revolution increased food production, hunger and malnutrition also increased most rapidly.  The green revolution answered the problem of hunger and rural unrest with increased production, not with land reform or employment projects; essentially it offered a technological solution to a social and political problem.

Ishmael is a lot about how the stories we tell influence our thinking.  How much land... and Shattering both tell of the Irish Potato Famine, its causes and effects, but the differences in their stories are revealing. (My own impression before reading these accounts was that the famine was a lesson about the dangers of relying too heavily on one source of food. ) Dr. Waggoner writes about the effects of the potato on the Irish population.  Because it provided a satisfactory diet from a smaller area than wheat, and was easy to grow, its widespread cultivation allowed the Irish population to increase greatly from the late 18th to the middle of the 19th centuries.  He then uses comparisons of yields of wheat and potatoes in different times and places to conclude that changing human diets and crop species to match the era and the place can increase the number of people sustained on a given area of land, saving more for Nature.  Later, he talks about the blight that appeared suddenly and decimated the potato crops for five years, and the Southern corn leaf blight in 1970-71, as examples of unexpected pests.  But, he doesnt mention the narrow genetic base that was responsible for the devastation these blights caused.  It wasnt until I read Shattering that I began to understand the causes of the Irish famine. 

The books authors, Fowler and Mooney, (whose ancestors emigrated to this country because of the potato famine), fill in the picture.  By 1840, Irish peasants were eating between nine and fourteen pounds of potatoes a day. All of the potatoes grown in Europe at that time were descended from just two introductions from the New World, late in the 16th century. 

After the blight, resistance was located in potatoes in the Andes and Mexico, and is responsible for the success of potatoes today.  The authors state that the Irish potato famine stands both as the most dramatic warning of the dangers of genetic uniformity and the clearest example of the value of preserving diversity.  

However, theres another part of the story that I hadnt heard before.  In 1840, there were eight to nine million people in Ireland, but 80 percent of the land was owned by just 4000 people, many of whom were foreigners.  Throughout the famine, Ireland exported large quantities of grain to England, and 80 percent of the countryside was grazed, not cultivated.  The military thwarted mobs which tried to prevent grain from being exported, and eventually Irish relief societies imported Irish grain from England at high prices for distribution to the poor.  The famine was a social problem, not an agricultural problem.  The Irish say God sent the blight; the English brought the famine.  This story has echoes in present-day Chiapas, Mexico, in India and even closer to home in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

 The CAST report would have us put our food supply in the hands of a few agricultural scientists and technologically-advanced farmers who use an industrial model and lots of inputs, synthetic hormones and genetically engineered seeds.  And this should be done for the sake of ten billion people.

Ishmael and Shattering remind us that there are other paths for us to consider. 

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